Charting the Arctic seas

Will increased nautical knowledge trigger development in Canada’s Far North?

By Herb Mathisen

The hydrographic survey launch vessel CSL Gannet heading back to the Canadian Coast Guard Icebreaker CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier | Courtesy of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans

This summer, Canadian hydrographers took to Arctic waters in search of the remains of Sir John Franklin’s doomed 1845 expedition. And while they found little of the famed Northwest Passage wreck, the mission added more detailed knowledge to the nautical pathway some still hope will open up the north to shipping and industry.

Using multi-beam sonar to measure the ocean’s depth and to create three-dimensional pictures of the seabed, along with a combination of one-beam and sidescan sonar, the Canadian Hydrographic Service (CHS) mapped more than 400 square kilometres of the Alexandra and Victoria Straits, said Andrew Leyzack, CHS hydrographer-in-charge. This new information should shave roughly seven hours of shipping time around the adjacent King William Island.

But the area surveyed represents just a small fraction of Canada’s internal Arctic waters, which have long remained under-charted.

“As of present, only one per cent of the Arctic has been surveyed to modern standards using multi-beam sonar,” Leyzack said, while 90 per cent of Arctic waters have large gaps in coverage and a high likelihood of undetected hazards.

Leyzack explained that modern charting opens up known shipping corridors, making it safer for larger ships with deeper drafts to navigate, while also creating alternate shipping routes for vessels confronting adverse sea ice conditions.

Without a dedicated vessel from which to perform its mapping, though, CHS hydrographers have had to piggyback onto coast guard and research vessels operating in the north when charting targeted areas.

Rob Huebert, an associate professor of the political science department at the University of Calgary, said charting should become a primary, and not secondary, duty of northern marine operations, adding the current government does not have a coordinated plan to chart the Arctic’s internal waterways.

“Once you chart, people will come,” Huebert said, noting that added pressure from increased shipping traffic would spur northern infrastructure development in a “piecemeal” fashion. Better infrastructure, including desperately needed harbours, would get industry’s attention; resupply and repair work, he said, would be made cheaper.

But Malcolm Lowings, principal and technical leader of Arctic and offshore oil and gas services with Golder Associates Ltd., said charting alone would not compel extractive companies to look north.

“It’s something you would take into account,” he said, but added the potential resource – and how to bring it to market – would remain the primary consideration. “The idea of mapping every square kilometre of sea floor in the Canadian Arctic Islands to modern standard is not reasonable,” he pointed out. “There are places in the Canadian Arctic that will never be visited ever.”

To date, CHS charting priorities have been determined based on consultations with the shipping industry, private sector, communities and local governments. The Nunavut government recently signed an agreement with CHS to chart the James Ross and Rae Straits.

And though he said good maps might not be a primary draw for industry, Peter Frampton, the government of Nunavut’s senior petroleum resources advisor, said further charting would reduce risk for companies. He pointed to hundreds of potential – yet uncharted – harbours along the eastern coast of Baffin Island, which could be used as staging points for possible offshore oil projects in the Davis Strait or even as safe havens from sea ice for ships.

“If you lower the risk, you lower the potential cost,” he said, adding that companies with more information can better plan their projects.

Yet poor charting represents just one of the risks of arctic operations. Lowings points to the high operating costs of working in the north, which is rife with logistical, environmental, regulatory and land-use hurdles, all of which threaten resource investments.

Despite this summer’s record sea ice melt and the region’s vast potential – the Sverdrup Basin alone is reported to contain some 45 trillion cubic feet of natural gas – large-scale development may remain unfeasible for some time.

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